According to Dean Martin, “You’re nobody till somebody loves you.”
Local restaurateurs, who aren’t exactly feeling the love in the current economy, hope that more couples decide to express their affection during dinner at their favorite bistro on Valentine’s Day and that they keep coming back throughout the year.
Steve Zolezzi, executive vice president of the Food & Beverage Association of San Diego, a trade association representing 700 restaurants and hospitality companies, offers his view of the economy.
“Downturn better describes what we are currently experiencing,” he said, putting the blame on the declining housing market. On a brighter note, the inventory of homes for sale locally is relatively low compared with the downturn of the mid-1990s, and the region’s economy is diverse, which points to a quicker recovery, he says.
But enough of reality. Movies provide a good escape. Anyone who saw the scene in “Tom Jones,” a 1963 classic in which a young Albert Finney as Jones and Joyce Redman as Mrs. Walters gorge themselves on shellfish and grog at a country inn, would agree that an orgiastic feast is the quickest way to an intended’s heart.
The Palm Seeks Sweet Night
That’s not quite the mood that The Palm Restaurant is trying to conjure up with its “Perfect Sweethearts Land & Sea” package for two that includes salads, filet mignon and a choice of seafood entrees and a couple of glasses of champagne, all for $120.
But Danny Cosenzi, the new general manager of the downtown steakhouse, says that even though business was down about 5 percent in 2007 compared with 2006, he looks for improvement this year , starting with Valentine’s Day.
He also says he expects to see guests on Feb. 14 who were new faces during San Diego Restaurant Week.
Restaurant Week, from Jan. 27 through Feb. 1, featured 150 of the county’s eateries, including The Palm, that offered their fare at discounted prices to lure new business. It’s the first of two such events this year. The second is slated for June 22-27.
“At first I thought, ‘Why are we giving our food away just to drive covers up?’ ” Cosenzi said, referring to the diner count. “But when I saw new people coming here, I realized that it was an opportunity to introduce people to our excellent service as well as our cuisine.”
He says The Palm’s goal is to increase local sales by as much as 4 percent this year from $4 million in 2007. Despite recession jitters, he says he thinks that The Palm would be able to attract more diners as new businesses, including lower-priced hotels that don’t have restaurants, open up nearby and the current glut of residential condos erected during the recent building boom are sold.
Judging from Valentine’s Day reservations that had reached 250 on Feb. 5, The Palm in downtown San Diego, one of the more recent additions to the national, New York City-based chain, is on the right track. Open since December 2005, it can accommodate reservations for roughly 400 that day, however the special menu offer will be extended through the weekend, he says.
A Wet, Slow Start To 2008
Though statistics are not yet available for the county’s restaurant sales in January, sources say that heavy rains put a damper on the local hospitality industry. According to Smith Travel Research of Tennessee, hotels experienced a 1.3 percent decline, compared with the same period in 2007, to log an occupancy rate of 64.6 percent for the 28 days ending on Feb. 2. Smith Travel tracks the lodging industry nationwide.
But the outlook for Valentine’s Day is rosy. “After checking with several members, reservations are well on the way to equal or better levels than last year,” said Zolezzi.
Ted Kanatas, general manager of the 1,625-room Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel on San Diego Bay, seconded that emotion.
The hotel is booked solid for Feb. 14-15 with convention and in-house meeting business. As of Feb. 5, Sally’s Restaurant, its upscale dining emporium, was still taking reservations for Valentine’s Day, but those coming without reservations could likely be accommodated at Lael’s Restaurant.
The Nightclub Scene
Nightclub and restaurant owner James Brennan, who is preparing to open his latest addition to the local club scene, Universal in Hillcrest, at the end of February, is also looking forward to brisk business on Valentine’s Day.
He said early last week that reservations were coming in steadily at Stingaree in the Gaslamp Quarter. But he also said that he isn’t taking any chances in the face of a possible recession and pared down his overhead recently by laying off 12 employees, primarily from the management ranks.
That leaves 400 workers at his establishments, which include the Side Bar and Ciro’s Pizza, as well as the Witherby, an event hall in the Gaslamp Quarter, and Bar West in Pacific Beach.
“People are watching their pennies, and from those I’ve talked to in the nightclub and restaurant business, here and in Las Vegas, I’ve been told that business is off from 15 to 25 percent and in some cases 30 percent,” Brennan said. “Usually business here starts to pick up in mid-March and improves during the summer. So we’re keeping an eye on everything. But we wanted to get our fixed costs in line to be prepared, in case it doesn’t.”
On the plus side, he noted that San Diego is a popular “drive-to” destination for people living in Los Angeles and Phoenix. Now, aside from proximity, they’ll have another reason for coming , to save on travel expenses.
“People will get in their car and drive here for a week instead of going to Hawaii or some other far-off place,” he said.
If history serves as a precedent, he’s correct.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the airline industry downturn that followed, San Diego’s tourism industry flourished compared with other destinations, including Hawaii.